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Nat Turner's belief that he was a mystic, born for some great purpose; a spiritual savior, chosen to lead Black slaves to freedom, justified his bloody rebellion against slave owners in Virginia. His actions did not so much spring from the fact that members of his family had been beaten, separated or sold, but rather from his own deep sense of freedom spoken in the Bible. From the time Nat Turner was four-years-old, he had been recognized as intelligent, able to understand beyond his years. He continued to search for religious truth and began to have visions or signs of being called by God. By the time Nat Turner reached manhood, the path his life would take was clear; his destiny would be to bring his fellow slaves out of bondage.
Nat Turner was born to a life of slavery in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1800. The state of Virginia had some diverse reactions toward slavery. Stephen B. Oates writes in his article "Children of Darkness" that "By southern white standards, enlightened benevolence did exist in Southampton County- and it existed in the rest of the state, too" (Oates, "Children" 42). There were some schools established for slave children, and religious meetings were openly allowed. Governor John Floyd was against the institution of slavery. The Fires of Jubilee, a book describing Turner's rebellion, explains his feelings on the subject. "He wanted slavery to be gradually abolished in Virginia and all the blacks colonized somewhere else, leaving the Old Dominion an unadulterated white man's paradise" (Oates, Fires 64). The unrest among slaves in Virginia was more evident than in the deep South because they had been given a small taste of freedom through activities like school and religion, but no sign that slavery would be abolished appeared. Instead, the economy of Virginia was the most important discussion in every session of the legislature. According to Boorstin and Kelley's History of the United States, "Blacks in some southern states outnumbered the whites, and there was no way for state leaders to handle this situation except by keeping the blacks in slavery" (Boorstin and Kelley 194). Nat Turner would grow up with a sense of frustration, not being able to see the end to the terrible injustice of slavery.
The fact that young Nat Turner was not like other young slaves was fostered by his parents. The family lived and worked on the Turner farm.
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Nat Turner's father ran away from the farm when Nat was nine, an event which made a big impression on the young slave. This example of courage stayed with Nat, and made his determination to help his people even stronger. He was beginning to realize that, like his father's dream, freedom would have to be his ultimate goal. He even ran away from the Turner farm and was not caught. The slaves celebrated for him as their hope for freedom. But after two weeks of hiding, Nat returned to the Turner farm. Nat Turner believed that he was born to greatness, and he was beginning to understand what had to be done to fulfill his vision. By the time he was twenty years old, the role of prophet was clear. Bisson's book describes Turner's vision of the spirit. "Nat later wrote in his Confessions that while he was in hiding, "the Spirit" had appeared and chastised him for having his wishes directed to the things of this world and not to the kingdom of heaven (Bisson 47). His destiny was not his own freedom, but the freedom of his people.
Religion was a big part of every slave's life, and Nat Turner began to develop a reputation as a Baptist preacher. It is important to note, however, that even though he was a Christian, he "took less to the New Testament and forgiveness and more to the stern righteousness, blood, and thunder of the Old Testament" (Bisson 38). Nat Turner could identify with Moses, the prophet, who listened to God speak of the Egyptians, "I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers..." (New American Bible, Exodus 3:4). Turner believed he was called to lead the black enslaved people to freedom. Like Moses, Nat Turner searched for signs from God. Moses' staff became a serpent, and Turner heard voices in the darkened sky. It was in the Old Testament that Turner could find justification for his plans to seek revenge on the slave masters in Virginia. There was also some witchcraft mixed into the slaves' religious beliefs, and the old African traditions of gods and rituals had an influence on Turner's preaching. He could stir up feelings of rebellion within a group of slaves while actually preaching his religion. "Christianity and freedom became tied together in his mind" (Bisson 38).
In 1822 Nat Turner was moved from the Turner farm to a farm owned by Thomas Moore. He was separated from his wife and children but was grateful that they were bought by a master in a nearby farm. His mother remained on the Turner place to care for the elderly Mrs. Turner. On the Moore farm, Nat continued his preaching and, at the same time, began to plan his rebellion. Many times Turner claimed he saw visions of rebellion such as figures drawn in blood on the leaves in the field. He said that the blood represented "the Blood of the Savior." Herbert Aptheker in his book on the American slave gives an account in the field when Turner heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared and said the Serpent was loosened and Turner should take it upon himself to fight against the Serpent for the time had come that the first should be last and the last should be first (Aptheker 296).
Nat Turner became convinced that the day of the rebellion would be soon. Economic conditions in Virginia also influenced Turner and his followers. The sale of cotton was down, forcing masters of the farms to work their slaves harder and harder. Talk of slave unrest sent a fear through Southampton and other parts of Virginia; militia were armed and on the look-out for any sign of rebellious blacks. Stephen Oates explains that Southern whites tried to tell themselves that nothing was wrong and went about their business. Even though there had been small insurrections in the past, they reasoned, the militia had taken care of them. There was nothing to worry about. (Oates, Fires 49). Meanwhile, Nat Turner was hours away from making his move.
After witnessing a solar eclipse in February 1831, Turner believed it was the long awaited sign. He has been quoted to have said at the time of the eclipse, "As the black spot passed over the sun, so should the blacks pass over the earth" (Oates, "Children" 45). All of the which craft, the Old Testament revenge, and the hatred Turner felt toward slavery came together in the decision made by Nat Turner and a group of slaves one dark night. The rebellion was planned for July 4, but had to be postponed because Turner became sick. This frustrated some slaves because they saw it as a sign of weakness, so Turner again made plans. The date was August 21, 1831. He met in secret with six followers, and they all decided that no whites should be spared.
Deep in the woods, Nat Turner and his men vowed that they would gain their freedom or die in the attempt. Turner appeared with the plan that they would rise that night and "kill all the white people." The revolt was to be so swift and terrifying that the whites would be too frightened to fight back. With only seven men to begin the revolt, Turner intended that it happen completely without warning. Nat Turner had lived his life for this moment, and there was no turning back from his vision of freedom. He saw the rebellion as his holy war, his prophecy, and the fulfillment of his promise to his people.
Nat Turner's rebellion was a bloody revenge on white masters and their families. The Turner farm was the first struck by the rebel slaves. The slaves wanted Turner, the prophet, to kill first, but he could not. Stephen Oates wrote that "as God's prophet, Turner preferred to let Will and the other lieutenants do the slaughtering" (Oates, "Children" 46). The rebels took farm after farm, all by surprise. To keep their revolt from arousing the countryside, no firearms were used, instead all of their victims were stabbed or decapitated. In the two day rampage, sixty white men, women and children were killed.
Turner's vision included the capture of the city of Jerusalem. It was fitting that his last stand would be made in a place named after the "holy city". The column of rebel slaves were attacked on all sides by militia and driven back to the woods. Word of the rebellion had spread and the slaves who were not killed hid in fear. Nat Turner was found several weeks later hiding in the woods next to the Turner farm. He was tried, found guilty and hung.
Nat Turner justified his bloody rebellion against whites as the fulfillment of a prophecy. After he was put in prison, Turner gave his written Confessions. When asked if he thought his mission was a mistake, Turner answered, "Was not Christ crucified? And by signs in the heavens that it would make known to me when I should commence the great work" (Turner, Confessions 3). Nat Turner had to kill the serpent, to strike out against slavery and free his people. It was the fulfillment of his prophecy.